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This page last updated 4 April 2014
Anglicans Online last updated 21 May 2017

an essay for Anglicans Online
21 January 2014

Surviving Death?
The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.

For a long time, I have thought that when people die, as the psalmist sings, "in that day their thoughts perish” (Ps. 146:3). We do not survive death. When God resurrects us, then we live anew, re-created, as it were. This is the pattern generally accepted by Christians today, although there have been long periods where it was thought that we have immortal souls that leave the body at death, and many hold to that belief still.

There are some traditional divisions in human thinking about death and after death. Then, as we shall see, there are further subdivisions. And moreover, ongoing research into near-death experiences and other possible evidence adds new wrinkles.

First, three basic theories of death:

  1. When the body dies, the person's mind, personality, and consciousness also cease to exist forever. Death is total annihilation.
  2. At death, the person's consciousness leaves the body and enters another realm of existence.
  3. Death is the complete cessation of bodily and mental activities. At some point in the future, God will raise us up, after the manner of Jesus' resurrection, giving us new life, new bodies and minds.

While (1) is shared among a few religions, including atheism, it doesn't have lively differing schools of thought that I know of. The American theologian Charles Hartshorne held that we would continue on in the mind of God, through God's memory of us. But he did not accept personal survival in any form. Theory (2) divides between those who believe in reincarnation and those who do not. On the one side are thinkers like Plato, various religions like Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism, and on the other side are the monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These latter are divided about how we survive death.

Jews and many Christians (including myself) are in the third category of after-life theories. The question is, when does the resurrection happen, and, asked less often, what does it consist of? Some hold that all shall be raised on the Last Day, the end of Time, to face judgment for our deeds of commission and omission. Others believe that we pass before God (or Christ on his judgment seat) immediately after death. Then we are either accepted into perfect life with God or condemned. There is also the school of thought that holds to a period of purgation for those who will ultimately be deemed worthy of dwelling in the unmediated presence of God. Until about 50 years ago, many also added a place called limbo, for unbaptized babies.

So far, all this is theology, discourse concerning us and Ultimate Things like death, God, judgment. Enter the scientists. In the nineteenth century, a great deal of interest in the possibility of personal survival grew, not as theology but as meriting scientific investigation. Despite severe censure by mainstream science, there is ongoing research that builds on work done earlier. Several of the best minds in quantum physics have taken new approaches to the question of consciousness. They postulate that, in one form or another, consciousness is essential to the fabric of the universe.

In a new book, Stop Worrying: There Probably Is An Afterlife, [amzn.to/1f6eNRH] Greg Taylor sums up this state of affairs. It is a popular-science approach to the topic, whence the word "probably" in the title. Theology does not enter into it at all. This makes the book all the more interesting to me, since the various attempts to blend science and religion together never seem convincing.

So is there "scientific" evidence for personal survival? The mainstream view is No. Consciousness is developed by the organism and is formed, as well as informed, by sensory data. When the body stops functioning, so does the mind, and consciousness ceases. Therefore stories about survival cannot be true, whether related by the Tibetan or Egyptian Books of the Dead, or by Raymond Moody's collection of near-death experiences. The phenomena described with great consistency from those ancient sources to today, buzzing noises, trips down tunnels, encounters with dead loved ones and some kind of Being that shows the person scenes from his or her life, all this is mere anecdote, describing at best hallucinations created by the brain as it begins to die. We are nothing more than "meat puppets," our apparent self-awareness totally dependent on neurons and neurochemical interactions among them.

Taylor lays out the real weakness of the skeptical position: it argues in a vicious circle. Consciousness must be created by the brain, therefore it cannot survive the death of the latter. Any evidence to the contrary cannot a priori be valid.

Besides the illogic of this position, it makes the mind equivalent to the brain. It is not. My own example that I use in teaching is the electromagnet. The magnetic field created by an electromagnet is dependent upon the electrical current passing through the iron. But a magnetic field is neither electricity, nor iron. The mind is not the brain, but something separate, something different, and it has its own structures which enable the conscious person to ask questions. Taylor points to an alternative metaphor that some in the scientific community have developed: what if the brain is not a "transmitter" but a "receiver." A radio signal does not depend upon a receiver to continue to exist.

But where Taylor's book challenges my own position is that it does seem possible, at least, that something — a soul, a mind, call it what you will — "escapes" the body at death. So there is another subdivision among Christians, between those who believe in an immortal quiddity whose existence does not depend upon a body, and people like me who think that death is the destruction of our bodies and our consciousness. My position starts with the skeptics, except that further along, I join the Church that proclaims, "We believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come."

Does it matter? Clearly, if you believe that death is The End, then our life on Earth has no ultimate meaning. It has no import other than what we little creatures attach to it. It would be a massive irony, and a cruel one, too, to be animals that require meaning in order to exist, to function, and yet whose lives have no meaning other than the illusions the meaning-manufacturers between our ears create. If human life has no meaning beyond its own frame of reference, then why do we insist on morality? In an absurd world, the only morals are what the Powerful say they are, and if you disagree, you will pay in pain, deprivation, and untimely death. So why resist? Play the status game, the power game, whatever gives you some momentary pleasure. Our lives are of no more value than sparks flying up from a campfire. And in the scheme of things, they are just as short-lived.

There are atheists whom I admire that resist such a reductionist approach, basing their lives on a "courage to be" without the divine. They seek to live a heroic life, facing the abyss of meaninglessness and nevertheless carrying on as moral people. Furthermore, I think that many so-called “believers” actually live their lives in the reductionist framework: “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” (Is. 22:13 & Ecc.8:15, conflated)

On the other hand, there is a strain of thought that particularly affects Christianity, known as "gnosticism." It comes in several varieties, but its basic message is that the world we are born into, including our bodies, is essentially worthless. We are immortal beings trapped in rotting flesh. What is essential is the gnôsis or knowledge of our true origin and true destiny. While most people go on thinking that something in their lives is important, the true believer knows that he or she is actually so much more than they are, because of the illumination that gnosis brings. In this framework, life is either denied, and extreme asceticism is demanded, or else life is to be exploited for the brief time we are here, trapped in it. Either way, gnostics discount the importance and reality of the present. Even with its ultimate referent, it sees no point to this creation. We are either superior discarnate beings trapped in protoplasm forged by some evil demigod ("demiurge"), or apprentice immortals required to go through this trial.

Taylor's simple argument is that we should take seriously the intimations of an afterlife that are present in the human experiences of death. "Seriously" for him means scientific study, and to my mind he makes his case. Beyond that, however, what shall we do with the results? There are limits to the relevance of scientific knowledge for the living of one's life. Suppose for the sake of argument that it could be proven that human consciousness exists in n-dimensions, not just the three that make up our reality. When the body dies and dissolves back to three-dimensional stardust, we go on in the other n dimensions. What would such knowledge change in our general view of life? Would you live differently?

I suppose there has to be a bit more to the story before we can feel required to change our outlook. If we continue on through death, what happens next? Are we reincarnated? Over and over, ad infinitum, is a very depressing possibility. Or else, we come back again and again until we Get It and can go on to eternity, Nirvana, &c. Who decides that?

If we go through a tunnel, only to be confronted with our life story, what happens then? Is there a Paradise for discarnate essences? Is there a Hell, and what of its little brother, Purgatory? Again, what are the criteria?

And how do we know? In fact, if there are genuine mediums among the many frauds, as Taylor describes, with what are they in touch? The spirits of our loved ones? Demons having fun at our expense? (though why they would want to make people feel better? Unless, of course, deceiving us in this matter weakens our belief in the Truth — demonic conspiracy theories...)

And finally, Gentle Reader, as my headache starts to bloom, what of Resurrection? The re-uniting of soul and body? The new creation of Me in a new Heaven and a new Earth? When does that start? At physical death?

Ok, stop. We Don't Know. Which leaves faith. The skeptical position could be proven, at least as far as this world is concerned, if all the data could be accounted for in a theory that has predictive power. That hasn't been done yet, and can't, until the question-begging stops and real science begins. Until then — if ever — it is purely a matter of faith that consciousness is annihilated among with the brain and body at death.

It is also a matter of faith for everyone else. Where does this leave me? I have musings, which I will simply posit for the interested reader.

Or else you may consider this The End, Gentle Reader, and thank you for reading it.

(No? All right, here goes:)

  1. Consciousness is an essential aspect of the Universe's being. Quantum physics is absolute nonsense otherwise – and it already seems nonsensical. But there are degrees of awareness, beginning with matter being in relation in order to Be. One rock in otherwise completely empty space is actually very difficult to imagine, because it could not exist — where’s the observer? Two rocks – now we are getting somewhere. Relation is fundamental.

    Life on Earth is another “quantum leap” in awareness: single-cell organisms have some awareness already. We know that plants can be aware of other plants, as well as reacting in sophisticated ways to their immediate environment. Many animals display an extraordinary grasp of their surroundings, and some are truly conscious. Once awareness blossoms into self-awareness, the ability, for instance, to, ask "what am I doing when I am knowing?" and "why is doing that knowing?”, we enter a spectrum of human consciousness that no other animal has attained. Self-awareness, or transcendence, is self-awareness that I am because of my relation to the Other.

  2. To use Aristotelian categories, when we die, the form and substance of our consciousness changes: the substance arising from physical processes ends, but the form, the information, does not.

  3. Resurrection begins when God's Spirit "raises" the personal form so that it can go on. It ends with the re-uniting of the form with a new creation. The resurrection appearances of Jesus show what this body is like. It is not bound by any limit in any dimension, or by the arrow of Time.

  4. There is so much more to God's creation that we inhabit now — or should I say Now – than can be dreamt of in our philosophies (theologies, mathematics, actually, the whole range of the human intellectual endeavor). Our minds work with facts. The word "fact" itself shows that it is an artifice of the mind, more or less related asymptotically to the Truth of what is under consideration. That we can be aware of the process of the making of facts is itself proof that we are more than our brains. What that is remains to be seen. Or more exactly, it remains to be lived.
.

THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. He welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at bppwhalon@aol.com.